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How Cities' Use-Of-Force Policies Vary, And A Police Culture Persists

After more than a month of protests against racial injustice by police and the killing of George Floyd, some police departments are considering revising their policies on use of force. 

But the culture of a police department may be more influential than any policy on paper.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice and Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office issued a blistering report on the excessive use of force (PDF) by the narcotics bureau at the Springfield Police Department. 

Brian Rizzo is a retired New York City police sergeant who teaches in Westfield State University’s criminal justice department. He said using force is part of the job description of being a police officer — to take control of a situation, to arrest someone, or even to save someone’s life.

"Sometimes the force is just their mere presence, and a person will comply," he said. "You may have to grab them by the arm or the shoulder and say, 'Come with me.' That’s still force. And then it ratchets up from there."

It could ratchet up to striking a person with an open hand, a closed hand, a night stick, or using a Taser — all the way up to using enough force to kill someone.

Rizzo said that kind of force, known as deadly force, is governed by case law Tennessee v. Garner from 1985. The case, he said, was about a man who stole someone's purse and ran away.

"He was jumping over the fence, and the cop shot him," Rizzo said. "The Supreme Court said from now on, unless that person who's fleeing is a threat — is an imminent threat of death, or serious physical injury, to someone right there — you cannot deploy deadly physical force." 

A crowd of more than 1,000 people gathered in front of City Hall in Holyoke, Massachusetts, on June 2, 2020, to protest police brutality and the killing of George Floyd.
Credit Ben James / NEPR
A crowd of more than 1,000 people gathered in front of City Hall in Holyoke, Massachusetts, on June 2, 2020, to protest police brutality and the killing of George Floyd.

How policies compare

The language describing police use-of-force policies in the five largest cities in western Massachusetts and in Hartford reflect that legal precedent.

A few cities have policies that stand out.

Hartford’s policies (PDF), for instance, say there will be consequences for excessive force, including possible criminal prosecution.

Rahsaan Hall, director of the racial justice program for the ACLU of Massachusetts, said most of the cities do not have policies that specify how officers would be disciplined.

A protester at a vigil on May 31, 2020, for George Floyd in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Credit Ben James / NEPR
A protester at a vigil on May 31, 2020, for George Floyd in Amherst, Massachusetts.

"And if any policy is going to be worth its salt, it has to make clear what the consequences are for not complying with it," Hall said.

Chicopee’s policies (PDF) say “the degree of force the officer is forced to use depends upon the amount of resistance or threat to safety the situation produces.”

Pittsfield’s policies say officers should intercede (PDF) to prevent the use of unreasonable force.

In Holyoke, officers have a duty to intervene (PDF) if they believe someone could die or be seriously injured during an arrest — and they won’t be disciplined for violating chain of command. 

But Hall said what’s common in police culture is officers standing together, whether they’re right or wrong.

“It's that passive acquiescence to excessive force that further erodes the credibility that law enforcement has within the community, especially communities of color, and other communities that are over-policed,” he said. 

Holyoke and Hartford’s policies ban chokeholds except in certain situations. For instance, they're banned in Holyoke unless an officer is fighting for his or her life. They're banned in Hartford unless the use of deadly force is authorized.

Hall said chokeholds or anything that restricts air or blood flow should be banned, no matter what.

"There should be an exhaustion requirement in any use-of-force policy — that the officer has exhausted any and all other means of de-escalating the situation before resulting to deadly force," he said. 

Springfield’s policies (PDF) state an officer may de-escalate, stabilize or escalate based upon the officer’s assessment of how much a subject is complying:

The officer may de-escalate, stabilize or escalate his/her response based upon his/her risk assessment and the perceptions of a subject's degree of compliance or noncompliance.

Force is a last resort

Rizzo teaches his students, some of whom may become police officers, to de-escalate, if possible, if the individual has a weapon that’s not a gun.

"If a guy has a knife and he's advancing to you, don't shoot. Just back up," he said. "Unless that guy is about to plunge that knife into your eye. Then you say, 'I guess this is the time I’m supposed to use force.'"

Rizzo said use-of-force is a last resort.

"When I say that to my students, they look at me like I'm crazy," he said. "I say, 'This is what you signed up for. Your life isn't as important as the person that's actually trying to attack you. They're the public. You're serving them.'"

Protesters during the Hartford Rally for Justice on May 30, 2020.
Credit Joe Amon / Connecticut Public / NENC
Connecticut Public / NENC
Protesters during the Hartford Rally for Justice on May 30, 2020.

When force is deemed excessive

Northampton attorney Luke Ryan said it’s rare for police officers to be prosecuted for excessive force.

"Officers know this, and they know that historically, you're going to have a very difficult time holding them accountable for using too much force," Ryan said. "Often, that's because the first thing that happens after they use too much force, they bring what are known as cover charges." 

That’s what happened in a case Ryan filed against the city of Springfield and three police officers on behalf of Lee Hutchins.

Early on a January morning in 2013, Springfield police knocked on Hutchins’s door, looking for his toddler grandson. Hutchins was 47 at the time. He’s disabled and is a person of color. He said an officer told him at the door they came to pick up the child. 

"You know what time it is?" Hutchins said he responded. "He’s upstairs with his father, sleeping." 

According to the jurors’ verdict in the lawsuit (PDF), the officers entered the house “unlawfully.” A bit later, two of the police officers and Hutchins’s younger son, Keith, ended up in a struggle outside on the ground. Hutchins said one of the officers swung his baton, hitting the other officer. 

"I grab the baton — I don't grab control of the baton, but I grabbed the baton long enough for his partner to actually get Keith," Hutchins said. "So the officer that was swinging the baton says to me, 'Either you let go, or I'll mace you.' So by the time I could let go, he maced me."

Hutchins said rubbed his eyes and moved toward another officer, who explained the pain would ease up.

"And next thing I know, I get whacked twice from behind, and I instantly go down to the ground," he said.

Hutchins was charged with disorderly conduct, assault and battery, and resisting arrest. About a year later, he was acquitted — and in 2019 won a $250,000 civil rights lawsuit charging, among other things, excessive use of force. 

Springfield Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood.
Credit Greg Saulmon / The Republican / masslive.com/photos
The Republican / masslive.com
Springfield Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood.

Springfield did not respond to requests for an interview with Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood for this story.

A recent U.S. Department of Justice investigation found officers in the Springfield narcotics bureau “repeatedly punch individuals in the face unnecessarily.”

Clapprood said at a press conference the department has been working on revising its "outdated" policies. 

"As long as I have been here, people have been trying to update them," she said. "It's such an arduous, enormous task, that we never quite got there. And now I think we realize we have to get there."

But attorney Ryan said, "What you have on paper is less important than what happens in practice." 

As for policies, Hall said they can make a difference if they’re transparent and hold officers accountable. But he said until the problems of police culture are addressed, police violence will still continue. 

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.
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